Meet the Tenderlocals: Michael Swaine, street tailor

The Tenderloin has a lot of interesting characters well-known by everybody in the neighborhood… mostly because they like to hang out in the street in a regular spot. There is comfort in the familiar no matter how much it may stray from the mainstream.

One of the most unusual and interesting in this broad cast of characters is a guy named Michael Swaine who sews clothes in the street for free, once a month. He has a cute mobile sewing cart with an umbrella and, for the last 9 years, on the 15th of the month he sets up shop by the Tenderloin National Forest. The cart has a neon sign with the word ‘sew’ that’s a bit broken. He also used to have signs advertising his “business”, but he’s so popular and beloved in the neighborhood that he doesn’t really need those anymore. People just know that he’ll be there from noon to around 5pm on the 15th, rain or shine. He has become a Tenderloin institution of sorts.

The first time I heard about Michael’s strange project was well before we started The Tender. Since then people have repeatedly told us about him as an example of the community and good things going on in the neighborhood. It’s exactly the kind of stuff we love to blog about here, and although he has received his fair share of (well-deserved) local media coverage over the years, all too often San Franciscans forget about all the good people in the Tenderloin.

For one reason or another I didn’t make it to see Michael until two Sundays ago, on August 15th. After having heard so much about him, I was extremely excited to finally meet him. Before heading down to the TL National Forest I went through my closet to find something to mend. I barely know how to sew a button on a shirt, so I immediately found two clothing items in need of some attention: a skirt clasp that needed reattaching and a pair of gym pants that I recently bought but were too long to wear.

Once I got there I saw him working on a hole in the crotch area of some old pair of jeans. He also had a little pile of items waiting to be mended, which people were going to collect a bit later. On a couple of chairs behind him there were two other people sewing diligently. I said hi and he immediately started chatting, in a way that made it obvious he truly enjoys conversing with strangers. I started asking him about his sewing machine, which apparently he rescued from the street. It’s a really pretty, pedal-powered antique machine that somebody had thrown away one day next to a trash container. He usually wouldn’t have been able to pick it up as he usually moves around by bicycle, but that fateful day some 10 years ago he was with a friend with a car. I’m sure if it had been an abandoned doggy this story would be a lot different.

Being a ceramics and sculpture artist, that inspired him to start a tailoring project originally titled “Reap What You Sew”. It consisted of the artist pushing his cart around the city on a predetermined route for an entire week, and it was part of “The Generosity Project: Strategies for Exchange in Contemporary Art,” held in 2001 at the California College of Art’s Wattis Institute. Michael considers the project a collaboration between himself and those whose clothes he patches, mends, hems and darns. As he put it in this interview for KQED, it’s an opportunity to create social interaction where there would otherwise be none:

I’ve had some wonderful stories told to me, and I realize that if I were standing here without the sewing machine, that person would just walk right by.

I spent a couple of hours hanging out with Michael, and had the opportunity to meet a whole gallery of interesting characters, lot of them regulars. Namely:

– An opportunistic fellow trying to sell scissors (pictured here)
– A young goth musician with his guitar, who was coming back from a rehearsal and wanted us to know about his next concert (unfortunately, I’ve forgotten the name of the band)
– A lady with a huge bag full of clothes named Veronica and who never misses Michael’s monthly sewing date
– An older man with a cane who lives across the street and came to enjoy the sun and gossip about German girls, and who brought his own stool to sit on
– A guy in a wheelchair with his cute dog who had a hole in his jacket pocket
– A lady with her frail elderly father who could barely walk and who brought a jacket with a little hole, and thanked Michael profusely in his broken English for mending it as he said it’s his very favorite jacket (although it looked identical to the one he was wearing)
– A guy who seemed to be in the dealing business wanting smaller pockets in his hoodie because his mobile phone kept falling out of it
– A lady who just wanted a needle and some thread to sew her own stuff at home
– An older lady who brought him a bag full of zippers, since he always needs some for his “clients”
– Several people with leather jackets in need of repair

But my absolute favorite encounter has to be the lady who didn’t speak a word of English and took a potato from one of her bags and gave it to Michael with a big smile. He thanked her politely but wondered what to do with it, and she gestured to him to eat it while she kept talking in what must have been Vietnamese (or perhaps Thai). We looked at each other puzzled and thanked her again, but she kept talking and waving her hands.

Finally, realizing her message wasn’t getting through, she reached into her bag again, took another potato and broke it in two to show that it was boiled. Michael then took a bite off his potato and thanked her again. Some half an hour later, the lady came back and seeing that he hadn’t finished his potato, reminded him about it. Then I understood she was worried about him spending too many hours working without any food. Moms…

During my visit I also saw a guy who tried to give Michael money, but he categorically refused saying that he should give it to somebody needy. I asked him if it’s common that people try to pay him, but he said most people show his gratitude by bringing him zippers, buttons and other sewing supplies, or occasionally coffee or snacks (such as opportunistic boiled potato delivery). He said that there used to be a guy living on that block who would bring chai from his apartment. Unfortunately, I didn’t see him (I love chai!).

I should note that, due to his popularity, Michael welcomes volunteers who can sew to help him out with his work. As mentioned in the list of people who came by while I was hanging out with him, he gets a lot of requests for leather clothing or other items that have to be mended by hand as they are too thick for the sewing machine. That kind of work requires time, so he especially welcomes assistants who can help him with hand-sewing jobs (if you’re interested you can call this number at the Luggage Store Gallery, who manages the Tenderloin National Forest: 415. 255-5971).

When I visited Michael, he had two assistants. One was a young girl whose name I forgot to ask (I’m an excellent reporter, I know), who was helping him as part of her community service for her upcoming bar mitzvah. The other one was a lovely lady named Laurel who went to Spain on her honeymoon (good choice) and was working on attaching fur to a coat. Apparently a Russian lady found some real mink in a thrift store and thought it would be a good idea to attach it on the sleeves of her good coat. Laurel spent a couple of hours working on it, so when she finished it I asked her to model it so you guys can appreciate it. She said she’s a sculptor who met Michael at an art workshop and since she likes sewing decided to help him. It was the first time she worked on mink.

Like everybody else, I left happy with my fixed skirt and my now usable gym clothes. I couldn’t help but ask him why he had chosen this neighborhood, and if he had ever felt unsafe here. He said that when you’re not afraid to open up to people, people open up to you. He started coming here by chance, because there was some kind of art festival in that block, but decided to stay because he found a truly warm neighborhood welcoming him. It was in the Tenderloin where he had the most interesting conversations, and it was here where people were the most willing to chat with him. After all these years, he says he still enjoys and has no plans to stop doing it. We sure hope he doesn’t.

Ps: if you liked what Michael does, you can watch this short video produced a couple of years ago for a Knitting & Stitching Show in London.

Meet the Tenderlocals: Mark Ellinger of Up from the Deep

Although writing a blog is a lonely and largely unrewarding endeavor, one of its greatest satisfactions is the chance to meet extraordinary people thanks to it. It can also be intimidating, since it’s one thing to post some links sitting at home in pajamas and a very different thing to be confronted with people who actually know what they’re talking about. And when we’re talking about the Tenderloin/mid-Market area, one such person is photographer/historian Mark Ellinger. Some of you might know his blog Up from the Deep, where he publishes some his photography and historical research about the neighborhood. That site is such an amazing treasure trove of information about the Tenderloin, that it demands everyone to run and check it out (the site is currently being re-organized, so take your time to browse it).

The title Up from the deep is an adaptation of the Latin phrase De Profundis, “Up from the depths (of misery),” the incipient of the 130th Psalm and the title of numerous musical settings and works of literature that include a letter by Oscar Wilde, written while he was imprisoned. It is also a reference to his own life journey that took him to the depths of “fucking death and destruction”:

Between 1985 and 1995 I lost most all that was dear to me: friends, family, business, home, and possessions. Crushed by mortification and grief, I turned to heroin to numb my pain, but my suffering was only increased by physical dependence on the drug. For six years I wandered the mean streets of San Francisco and found out exactly how low I could sink.

Mark loves to photograph skies, and buildings in the Tenderloin

After spending 6 years living in the streets experiencing “the dark night of the soul”, predictably he lost everything, including himself. Also, his leg was nearly amputated and yes, you’ve probably guessed it: he nearly died in the process. Then he had an epiphany, but fortunately it wasn’t one of those finding Jesus type of epiphanies. Mark found that life was sweet, simple as that. After a couple of months in the hospital and 5 surgeries later, he finally managed to get a roof over his head for the first time in many years. That’s when he realized that having a roof over your head is “what makes it possible to engage with the rest of the world and accomplish anything”. And engage he did, drawing, painting and making friends. Like a Hungarian fellow named Josef who gave him his first camera at the beginning of 2003.

It was a cheap camera with a bad resolution, and he always took it with him and took photos of everything all day long. When he finally managed to download them into a computer he almost threw the camera out of the window. The photos were so bad, he says, that if a friend hadn’t been with him that day and convinced him to continue taking pictures, he would have given up.

Joy of life

When I asked Mark about his favorite pictures, the first one that came to mind was “Joy of life” (above). Perhaps because Mark loves brick buildings? (I love them too).


Another favorite of his is the one above, which he has on his business cards. This is what he wrote about the picture:

This image exemplifies why I love San Francisco so much. Fiery sunsets such as this set my mind and emotions ablaze, making life’s problems seem mere trifles; elevating me to some higher plane of awareness by making me conscious of what a tiny cog I am in the vast machinery of the Universe.

Ironically and unbeknown to me, around the time I took this photograph, the Fifth Church of Christ, Scientist was condemned by the City and will most likely be demolished.

Personally, I like it because it clearly shows that the Tenderloin does have a golden hour, but also because it’s so dreamy and surreal it almost looks like a scene from a sci-fi movie.

Another personal favorite of mine is the one above of the Hotel Mentone, mainly due to the dominant red color tone – and I love red. But be warned: it’s extremely hard to pick favorites amongst Mark’s photos, since they all show the love and passion, the gratefulness and admiration he feels for the neighborhood.

All of his hotel photographs are extremely beautiful, some of them even look like paintings. Particularly the vintage signs are the reason why the Tenderloin is the most awesome neighborhood in San Francisco, hands down. Like this one of the Columbia hotel, at 411 O’Farrell.

Mark has been living in San Francisco for over 40 years, since he was a teenager coming from Ohio to study at the San Francisco Art Institute as a painting major. During all these years he’s worked as a sound engineer, he’s been a music composer for an animation film in which Orson Welles read a poem by Coleridge, he’s traveled the world, and he’s even worked as dog kennel driver. But it was the experience of living in the streets with nothing to live for that brought him closer to this neighborhood and made him want to photograph it to show the world its beauty.

Meet the Tenderlocals: Katherine Mathis of Revolver Studios

You may not think of Katherine Mathis–a hip, pretty blonde originally from Marietta, Georgia–as your typical Tenderloin resident. And that assumption is part of the problem. The 28-year-old branding executive says her Hyde Street apartment is in a “super-cool, funky neighborhood” and as someone who’s lived in everywhere from Paris to Brooklyn to the Marina, she ought to know. She’s currently a finalist for 7×7 magazine’s “Hot 20 Under 40“. If you want to vote to get her into the top 10, make sure you do it before voting closes at 11:59pm tonight.

Frank and engaging, Mathis is the principal at Revolver Studios (Twitter), a thriving branding and marketing firm she founded in June 2009. Mathis’s background is working with luxury brands like Hermes and Cartier, but Revolver maintains an edgy, irreverent, yet meticulously crafted aesthetic. As Mathis says, if a client wants boring, she can do it, and very well. But she prefers to keep things fun and now has an international client list. In fact, the day after we spoke, she was jetting off to El Salvador to meet with a new company.

Although Mathis’s five-person office is located by the Embarcadero (gotta keep up a high-end image, she explains) she makes her home in a neighborhood all her friends warned her against. Mathis had four roommates in her prior apartment in the Dogpatch and quite frankly, she says, the Tenderloin was one of the cheapest neighborhoods for studios. After she got used to the street noise, Mathis explored the area and she can’t say enough about the care and expertise with which the chef at Lahore Karahi fixes delicious Punjabi food. She also recommends the newly opened Hooker’s Sweet Treats as a meeting spot for business associates.

For now, Mathis intends to stay in the Tenderloin, and she wants to keep her business as it is as well. “I want to stay small, it allows us to be nimble,” she says. But Mathis also recognizes that change, both in her business and her neighborhood is inevitable. She feels the Tenderloin has a way to go before it gets too expensive, and thinks “Oakland is in a good place right now” in terms of gentrification. Mathis is quick to say that despite the Tenderloin’s reputation as a hotbed for the drug trade and thieves, she’s never had any personal attacks. In fact, the one time she got her phone stolen, it was in the Financial District. “I was so glad it didn’t happen in the Tenderloin because I just knew everyone would tell me, ‘We told you so’,” she says. “It’s up to people like us not to be afraid of the rep.”

Photo credit: Brandon Joseph Baker. Shot in Mathis’s Tenderloin apartment.